As National Broadband Plan endgame approaches, the game isn’t over

19 Nov 20181.13k Views

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Will Ireland be adequately future-proofed with new broadband infrastructure? That is the ultimate question, writes John Kennedy.

Do you hear it? Drip, drip, drip. It’s the sound of the political spin machine whirring artfully into play, setting the stage and crafting the narrative for how Ireland’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) hopes and dreams will play out.

The report of Peter Smyth, the auditor appointed by An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, TD, is due any day or week now. It will determine whether the troubled NBP to bring fibre to 542,000 isolated premises has been, as Fianna Fáil put it, fatally compromised, or whether it is salvageable.

Signals – or leaks – picked up by the media indicate that a plan B is most likely, and it is clear that not everyone is going to be happy about it.

However, instead of imagining scenes from Yes, Minister where private secretaries skilfully direct bumbling politicians in a certain direction, it is the public who are already being prepared, if you ask me. An election year is approaching, don’t you know?

It’s all about optics, not just fibre optics

Put simply, the NBP, which was to bring Ireland to a leadership role in the digital economy, is now what I feared it would become: a political football.

It is also a political hot potato because no politician, aspiring or otherwise, wishes to be the bearer of the bad news during the hustings in any forthcoming general election that people will not get broadband in their local neighbourhood.

This is how it appears the public are being prepared:

Act I: Reports emerged that the NBP was going to cost €3bn to deliver, up to six times the originally envisaged cost, and that it would cost on average about €6,000 per premises to pay contractors to deliver fibre.

Act II: Stories appeared in recent weeks that indicate fibre take-up in rural Ireland does not look promising. For example, a front-page story appeared in The Irish Times outlining how just one in seven homes in rural Ireland so far offered high-speed broadband by Eir have been taken up, raising “serious fears” in Government about the viability of the NBP.

Act III: Float other options. These options include the possibility of semi-State bodies such as ESB or Aurora Telecom stepping into the fray with their considerable engineering expertise and dark-fibre infrastructure.

Act IV: A new plan, possibly watered down, or augmented, will come to the rescue.

But will everyone be happy? Any plan is better than no plan and, as I have argued before, if the plan B leaves people out, then wireless ISPs (WISPs) need to be brought to the table to go those extra miles to ensure people who need the technology can get it.

Lighting up other options

As the quest for universal dark fibre in Ireland reaches its darkest hour, it is interesting just how other options are appearing, as if by magic.

The tectonic plates of technology are shifting seismically, and existing and new technologies such as 5G are being revealed at an interesting pace and at an interesting time.

  • Exactly a week ago (12 November), Eir revealed that it was making a €150m investment in its mobile network that will see it deliver 4G voice over LTE (VoLTE) and data across more than 99pc of the geography of Ireland. It is understood that Eir also plans to roll out 5G services, starting first in Irish cities, in 2019.
  • A day later (13 November), Eir revealed plans to invest €1bn over the next five years to expand its national fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) network and upgrade its mobile network to 5G. The all-encompassing plan will see an additional 1.4m homes and businesses connected to FTTH services in the coming years. Eir currently passes 1.8m premises with fibre and said it will have reached 330,000 in the intervention area it agreed with Government last year by next June.
  • Aurora Telecom revealed on Thursday (15 November) that it has begun work on the final portion of a second Dublin to Cork fibre optic link as part of a €35m dark-fibre investment plan. Scheduled for completion by Q3 2019, the new section of network will serve Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny, Carlow and Kildare. When completed, Aurora will operate a fully resilient national ring network linking Dublin with the midlands, west, south and east, providing future-proof capacity to meet long-term broadband requirements for the towns and cities along its route.
  • The same morning, tower infrastructure player Cignal revealed plans to invest €25m in 300 locations over the next two years to address coverage blackspots in rural Ireland. In what is considered the biggest roll-out of new towers in the last decade, this investment will be of benefit to mobile operators as well as WISPs.
  • In Northern Ireland, Belfast was named as one of six launch cities for EE’s 5G network.
  • In the UK, Three’s CEO revealed a plan to invest £2bn in the roll-out of 5G. Earlier this year, Three Ireland CEO Robert Finnegan said the company plans to invest €100m a year on a 5G roll-out plan in the Republic of Ireland.
  • Siro, the joint venture between ESB and Vodafone, revealed in August that it had passed 175,000 premises and aimed to pass an additional 50,000 premises before the end of the year, bringing its network size to 225,000 homes and businesses.
  • Virgin Media’s Project Lightning plan is making stealthy progress, and the company recently revealed that it surpassed 900,000 premises across Ireland with fibre, capable of receiving 1Gbps speeds, and expects that it will surpass 1m premises over the next two years.

Serendipity or the bones of a new plan?

The various plans of private operators along with the seemingly tactical leaks to newspapers about the viability of the original NBP would make any reasonable person question whether there was a need for an NBP in the first place.

But the reality is that there are people who want this connectivity and infrastructure for their livelihoods, for education or just to be part of the world, and they still cannot get it.

No one should be left behind, and a creative approach that joins up all of these fantastic investments along with a credible intervention plan by the State is needed.

Whether the original plan is scrapped or saved, the crucial question that policymakers and the leaders of telecoms firms need to ask is: are we future-proofing this island for the needs of future generations?

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Editor John Kennedy is an award-winning technology journalist.

editorial@siliconrepublic.com